By Erik J. Martin | CTW Features
In a world where materials like plastic, MDF, pressboard, and laminate are commonly found in modern furniture, it’s easy to feel nostalgic for old-school hardwood furnishings carefully crafted from oak, cherry, maple, mahogany, or walnut – even if you’ve never or rarely owned such pieces in your own home. Wood adds warmth, stability, and charm to any domicile, and you can quickly tell the difference between solid wood creations and cheaper imitations.
A wider appreciation of wood has led to a reclamation trend among homeowners and DIYers that involves restoring and refinishing wood furniture, per the experts.
“Besides creating a piece of furniture you love, you have the opportunity to rescue something awesome that everyone else overlooks,” says Mark Clement, contractor/principal of MyFixitUpLife. “Restoring a quality wood piece can be a great activity you share with your family or use as an escape from them.”
To Robert Kundel Jr., CEO of Wellington Corp. and inventor of the Restorer power tool, “it means being able to take something old and weathered and give it a new purpose or bring a family heirloom back to its original glory to enable generations to come to enjoy their connection to the past.”
Interior designer Linda Sasson says the best candidates for refinishing are hardwood pieces wrought from species like cherry, oak, teak, ash, maple, or mahogany.
“Stay away from furniture that has a wood veneer because it is very delicate and difficult to refinish and repair an extremely thin layer of wood. If the veneer is not in great condition, it can be dry and brittle,” she says. “Opt for otherwise desirable pieces of furniture that may be in poor condition but which can be purchased for only a fraction of the price or a favorite piece that has fallen into disrepair.”
To refinish a piece of wood furniture effectively and properly, it’s crucial to first remove every centimeter of the previous finish, according to Ray Morrone, a professional refinisher of mid-century modern furniture for Farnsworth Gallery in San Francisco.
“Start by wearing thick latex gloves and generously applying a wood stripper in a warm environment. Be patient and let the wood stripper do its job. Wait until you can visibly see the old finish bubbling and peeling away from the wood,” he suggests.
You can use a soft paintbrush to apply the lacquer stripper wash.
“Depending on the existing old finish, this process is done a minimum of two times to remove the old shellac, lacquer, polyurethane, or enamel,” says Sasson.
Next, employ a plastic or wooden flat tool like a putty scraper to gently push the wood stripper and old finish off the surface. Avoid using metal tools that can scrape or scratch the underlying wood.
“To get the old finish out of grooves, beveled edges, or round sections like tapered table legs, use 00- or 000-grade steel wool with a little paint stripper and a lot of elbow grease,” adds Morrone.
After removing as much of the old finish as possible with chemicals, prepare to sand and eliminate any remaining patches of the previous finish. Use 220-grit sandpaper and sand down the wood in the same direction as the wood grain.
“Be careful using a power sander because you don’t want to burn through a thin veneer,” Morrone cautions.
Once sanding is completed, apply a small amount of tung oil or wood stain to a thick blue paper towel or lint-free cloth. Apply the solution evenly with long strokes in the same direction as the wood grain.
“Don’t use a paintbrush to apply wood stain or tung oil, as you may leave fallen bristles from the brush embedded in the finish,” says Morrone. “Wipe away any excess stain or oil and let the new finish dry.”
If you are using a stain, you will also need to apply polyurethane to seal and protect the finish. Apply the first coat and let it settle and dry overnight in a warm, dust-free environment.
“If you apply too thick of a polyurethane coat, the top will dry but the deeper spots will crack, and you will have to start all over again,” Morrone continues.
Once the first polyurethane coat is dry to the touch, provide a light sanding with a 220-grit or finer sandpaper to remove any orange peel or bubbling in the polyurethane. Then, apply a second coat.
Sasson recommends using an airless pump sprayer to apply the final topcoat, “which can help achieve a satin, semi-gloss, or high-gloss finish.”
After the third and final coat is dry, “your furniture will look as good as new,” says Morrone.